Lyrics without music are like a clam without a shell.
Songs lyrics are called melic — a word that means the lyrics are intended to be sung. Indeed, the word melic comes from the Greek word melos, meaning “song.”
It’s no surprise, therefore, that no matter how much one might enjoy a song, the overwhelming majority of lyrics simply don’t hold up without their musical counterpart. When I was a kid, I used to puzzle over that a lot. For example:
So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found? The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
That happens to be a song I really love — a song I’ve heard thousands of times over the years and never get tired of. Still, I think there’s no denying that those lyrics, like virtually all lyrics, don’t have nearly the same power without their beautiful music behind them.
But … I recently (re)came across a set of lyrics, and my first thought was: those lyrics do hold up well without music:
There walked a lonely man,
silent, mute, the only man
not knowing how, not knowing why
was he the sole survivor
Why should he be alive,
breathing still while others died,
and the only question:
why was he the sole survivor?
Sole survivor, cursed with second sight
Haunted saviour, cried into the night.
The wind blew across the sand.
He stood alone and he had no plan.
With the last rays of the sun,
he screamed aloud, and began to run.
In his tears he sees his face.
I am the end of the human race.
When I’m gone there’ll be no trace.
For I’m the sole survivor.
Then one night, when years had passed,
The skies shook from a fiery blast.
There came a starship — saved at last —
To come rescue this survivor.
They beckoned him inside,
but the only man, he would not ride.
Instead he found a place to hide;
for he’s the sole survivor.
Not bad, eh?